Clinton’s Ditch: Alive and Well in Camillus

Scenic Erie Canal Park view.
02/17/2021
story and photos by James P. Hughes

In 1809, President Thomas Jefferson deemed funding requests for a canal project across New York State as “a little short of madness,” perhaps feasible “a century hence.” New York Governor Dewitt Clinton and others disagreed and pressed forward with the venture. By 1825, the Erie Canal – often labeled “Clinton’s Ditch” – was open for business and, as is so often said, “the rest is history.”

The “Old Erie’s” golden era is long past, but nuggets of that notable history endure. Committed folks in communities along its pathway have refused to let its story die. Parks, signage, and recreational opportunities persist where once the canal’s remains were choked with undergrowth and crumbling stonework. 

The Erie Canal Park in Camillus, recently dedicated to Liz and Dr. Dave Beebe, is a gem where the aura of those robust “canal days” remains alive and well. The Beebes became entwined with the canal’s legacy half a century ago, almost by accident according to Dave:

Liz is a New Jersey native and was only peripherally aware of canal history from family boating trips through the upstate area. I grew up here, but outside of seeing bits and pieces of the old canal on youthful bike explorations, never paid it much attention.

In the early 1970s, a 164-acre plot of state land became available, a committee was formed, and for $15.00 per acre the parcel was purchased by the Town of Camillus. Soon after, the Beebes began their long love affair with the Erie:

Dave and Liz Beebe

Liz and I were members of that committee, mostly because of our interests in ornithology and outdoor activities … but restoration of Erie Canal remnants within the plot became pivotal elements of the project. As time went on, we were certainly bitten by the “canal bug.”

The Camillus Canal Society was formed and, with just a dozen volunteers, the park began to take shape. As work progressed, more and more vestiges of the canal emerged. Liz and Dave’s involvement increased as well, as did their passion for the Erie Canal and its history. Over the years, growth of the Camillus Erie Canal Park has continued under their leadership, but the Beebes are quick to credit others:

We would be lost without the input of our volunteers. Now more than 160 devoted members donate time, a wide variety of skills, and, most importantly, enthusiasm. There’s great satisfaction in what’s been accomplished … and always eager anticipation for what still lies ahead.

Early efforts cleared brush, created trails, planted a few flower beds, and added basic signage. From its original 164 acres, the park has now grown to more than 400 acres – an established community resource for local folks, school groups, and visitors of every stripe.

Sims’ Store Museum is a replica of an original canal-side general store filled with historical artifacts, canal photographs, 1800s period displays, and a gift shop. Boat cruises ply placid Erie waters, accompanied by historic narration with questions encouraged. Up and down the park, hikers and bikers follow its manicured towpath and explore wooded trails.

The crown jewel of the seven-mile-long Erie Canal Park is its “water bridge,” a reclaimed limestone aqueduct over Nine Mile Creek. Restoration of this unique structure, completed in 2009 and dedicated in 2010, is a source of pride to the community, the canal society members, and the Beebes: 

There’s only one in New York State … the only navigable aqueduct of the original 32 along the Old Erie, and it’s right here in Camillus. Constructed in 1844, it’s been fully restored … the sole aqueduct of its kind along the waterway’s route from Albany to Buffalo.

All agree that education holds a high priority with the Canal Society. The aim of every activity, from school tours to its annual Towpath Day celebration, is to foster an appreciation of the Erie Canal’s storied history. For Parks & Trails New York’s annual “Cycle the Erie Canal” bike tour, the Sims’ Store Museum is a favored stop for more than 650 cyclists gathering historical tidbits during their week-long venture. In Camillus – the exact midpoint in that challenging trek from Buffalo to Albany – travelers receive a festive welcome: food, ringing bells, and often even Half-Moon cookies.

 

 

Long after having inherited the “canal gene,” Liz and Dave are constantly on the lookout for period artifacts and other means to enhance the park’s offerings. Dave has been known to explore far and wide seeking long-forgotten pieces of the Old Erie.

There are still artifacts and scraps lying about that should be in a better place … where they’re appreciated. I’ve even gone underwater a few times to discover rusted relics attached to the base of a rotted-out lock gate … nuts and bolts … anything worth preserving.

With that kind of commitment, The Liz and Dave Beebe Erie Canal Park continues to grow, its operations overseen by The Camillus Canal Society. Promoting interest in Erie Canal preservation and providing exceptional recreational opportunities within the town remain the major goals. Society member Linda Vishnesky sums up the feelings of many:

The Erie Canal truly gets in your blood. Like so many, I’m drawn to the place – it’s a pleasure to work here. While the Beebes would never take credit, for half a century they have truly been the heart and soul of the park’s evolution and its legacy.

From a leisurely walk to an immersion in Erie Canal lore, those who regularly enjoy all the park has to offer in every season would no doubt agree. 

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